Can’t say I think too much of this take on the Young Money record — the beats I heard are reasonably ‘fresh’ & novel, but all have this sorta textural thinness that doesn’t really bear much replay (think the exact opposite of a Dre beat off 2001, where each track’s inherent hugeness gives it a sort of infinite timelessness, feeling like Stonehenge or Easter Island, the kind of song that resets the rap timeline where you can’t imagine rap without it.)
And the less said about the rapping the better; Minaj somehow acquits herself the best, or sounds more like a star at any rate, and I used to like Mack Maine! But the constant underlining of punchlines is just unbearable. Since when did rap fans want to hear each average punchline accompanied by a jab to the ribs?
Real talk the rap record you should be listening to in the first quarter of 2010 is by J Stalin:
He can write, he has energy and personality and a cocky, youthful approach. Never particularly concerned with wordplay, just directness and a strong appreciation of the art of rapping, the kind of vibrancy missing from most rappers right now. He’s been killing it for a few years — 808 bangs pretty hard & you get a chance to see some big-name cosigns in the video, and Paint the Town was a bona fide post-hyphy anthem. Other than two pretty mediocre ladies tracks (“Get Off Me” and “G In Me” — although dont get the wrong impression, he has some solid 4theladies tracks as well) Prenuptial Agreement is Stalin’s best record yet, topping Gas Nation.
The new bay music has created an interesting way out from the kind of boring local scene b.s. that has made entire metropolises worthless for rap in other parts of the states. It helps that the bay has always been kind of isolated and insular in some ways, and aside from the awkward period of brief media infatuation circa hyphy, artists like the mob figaz and J Stalin’s livewire crew, along with production from guys like the mecanix, dj fresh and traxamillion, have added another chapter to the long tradition of yay area mob music dating way back. But what makes this shit feel so vital & worthwhile right now — and the reason it’s become my favorite scene at the moment — is a little more complicated.
The scene seems to mainly surround a few key figures — mob figaz Jacka & Husalah and Livewire’s J-Stalin and Shady Nate seem to be the most inspired behind the mic. Jacka’s persona in particular seems to carry gravitas that could put him on the level with bigger national rappers; his innovation was incorporating east coast mafia rap style (he even bears a sorta-resemblance to jadakiss) with a laconic west coast swagger. There are of course hundreds of other guys out there of varying levels of ability, and aside from the above exceptions, this scene doesn’t feel particularly personality driven. If you want to catch up on everything J-Stalin’s been on for the past year, you’re downloading not just his pre-leak tape and the album, but the Livewire compilations, DJ Fresh’s The Real World, and countless other records from other bay area artists where the guy is featured. The bay has always had a rep for churning out product, but in this economic climate, where the entire region seems to constantly be dropping material, most artists rely on everyone else to help pad out their albums, keeping up a consistent stream of new releases.
But what keeps this system interesting is that bay area rap music is most reminiscent to me of that late 1990s/early 2000s period in New York, where hardcore new york street rap was at once uncompromisingly rap, while remaining unapologetically pop. I’m talking about late 90s Jay-Z circa “Can I Get A….”, The Lox on “Ryde or Die Bitch,” Big Pun’s “Still Not a Playa,” even Ja Rule jacking Stevie for “Livin It Up.” I think the last big anthem I remember like this that still felt like a part of this movement was Ja’s “New York New York” with Jada and Fat Joe. Basically, that moment in the wake of Bad Boy’s big string of number one hits, where each glossy chorus was OK because the raps were hard & the vibe was hood.
Aside from guys like Jacka and J-Stalin, a lot of the albums in this scene are incredibly inconsistent — in fact, the brand new Jacka tape is mostly dull (although “We Mafia” is a must hear for the kind of sunny-day mafia rap vibe that basically cant exist in gothic new york), and even his solo album was worse than it should have been (the street album he dropped before it is incredible, though). It’s a sign that Jacka and DJ Fresh should both realize — as cool as it is to hear Fresh work with Kool G Rap, or Jacka with Freeway, it really breaks the illusion that these guys are working within their own universe, and the music so far just hasn’t been good when they break out. A stiff rapper like Berner records better tracks with Jacka than Freeway does:
In 2009, popular rap is moving in two directions; mainstream gangster throughout is in a lo-fi tinny vein more comparable to early 90s NY than most early 90s NY fans probably even realize, and aside from an occasional crossover soulja boy/KE single, is pulling further than ever from the pop charts. Then the biggest pop hits tend to be more R&B than rap, as if they’re apologizing for even letting Gucci or Drake bother anyone for 30 seconds of non-singing. A huge part of the appeal of the bay stuff is how high-production-value it sounds in comparison to a lot of southern shit, just as a refreshing contrast. But more than that, it’s about this angling for a kind of unpopular ‘pop,’ this sort of imaginary audience that craves hooks & style and a certain musicality & suaveness within rap. It’s not that they want to be listening to another genre, like Flo Rida fans who secretly just want to be at 80s night, to have a chorus to sing along with. This is rap music for fans of real talk & kush smoking, street music etc., but with an appreciation of songcraft & musical sensibilities, an appreciation of the lush rap production of the music’s popular peak.
As a result, beats tend to be rooted in an 80s R&B and pop tradition not unlike the Trackmasters (certainly progenitors of the late 90s pop-rap NY movement), the same smooth synthesizers and electro-R&B instrumentals that gave us “I Love the Dough” & “I’ll Be”. DJ Fresh, in particular, seems to revel in this sort of thing. Although the Mecanix do too, particularly on the highlights of Prenuptial Agreement; take Money on the Way for a kind of Miami Vice / 80s cop movie vibe. Or the album’s closing track, “Show Me”:
This isn’t to say that this shit is pop in a way that’s going to storm the billboard charts; quite the opposite, in fact. A part of the appeal to this is that it’s captured an intangible pop vibe that used to exist, but doesn’t really any more on a wide scale, perhaps the natural outcome of a rap scene existing in such an insular space for so long. It requires a lot of work to follow, or at least a lot of hard drive space; I basically end up flipping through mixtapes pretty quickly, pulling out great tracks and moving on. It’s like looking for variation, for unexpected moves, the ultimate search for novelty — you know you’re getting bored when you start hearing tracks that all sound too similar, but just then you’ll find Husalah rapping over a beat like this or J-Stalin doing an inspired hollering-at-the-ladies pop rap single like this. It also requires giving each track a chance to work on its own terms, rather than following a couple key rapping auteurs or figureheads. It’s a really healthy scene that relies on constant surprise and has an amazingly high hit rate.